2014-15 Boston Celtics Preview, Part Two, the In-Betweeners: Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Evan Turner and Gerald Wallace

The trade of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (why mention Terry) to the Brooklyn Nets for a handful of valuable 1st round picks and Gerald Wallace continues to linger over the Boston Celtics fifteen months later. The nature of the trade (future help for present misery) makes it impossible to measure until 2020 or so.

But let’s stay in the present, with an eye on the nearer future, for a few minutes. The Celtics have several versatile forwards on the roster this year. Each of them have an uncertain future in Boston. Of the four players we’ll look at below, only Gerald Wallace is close to certain to stay with Boston until the end of his contract, June 2016. Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Evan Turner are all intriguing players with various skill sets and all three have proven themselves to be valuable NBA players. Still, it isn’t obvious what kind of roles each will play yet this year.

Last year’s Celtics were an assortment of ages and experience. Veterans Kris Humphries, Courtney Lee, Jerryd Bayless, and Joel Anthony have been scattered to the NBA winds. In their place are younger, less-experienced players: Evan Turner (25), Tyler Zeller (24), Marcus Smart (20) and James Young (19). As the Celtics move forward, they have only one over-30 year-old player under contract for 2015-16, Gerald Wallace (33).

Jeff Green

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Want to divide Celtics fans? Mention Jeff Green’s name. An offense that was struggling even with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in 2011-12 (24th in offensive efficiency) was made even weaker after the Brooklyn trade.

Left in the wake of that trade was a fan-base desperate for some sort of scoring option. Celtics Nation turned its lonely eyes to Jeff Green and talk of his newly-signed contract was proof that he was supposed to become “the man.” The problem: Rajon Rondo went down with an ACL tear. Jeff Green was left to become “the man,” on a team without any other main options and without a point guard. Consider how sweet-shooting wing-players depend on point guards to produce (last year, Trevor Ariza’s fantastic season owes much to John Wall; Klay Thompson owes much to Steph Curry, etc.). Then consider Avery Bradley and Jordan Crawford are not point guards.

Jeff Green has never been that me-first player and has never displayed the indomitable will and sometimes-selfish attitude of a primary-scoring option. The people wanted Jeff Green to become Paul Pierce, circa 2002. Jeff Green might be making himself into a better pure shooter than Pierce used to be, especially from the corners, but he doesn’t have the same kind of body as Pierce (able to absorb all kinds of contact) and he doesn’t have the same chip on his shoulder. Few players have sustained that chip-on-your-shoulder spirit that Garnett and Pierce had. Being drafted 10th overall was part of it. Growing up as a chubby kid probably has something to do with it. Never being the most athletic player probably has something to do with it. That’s Pierce. Green has elite athleticism. He makes eye-popping drives to the hoop, finishing with flourishes at the rim. We want Jeff Green to do that every night, because it stirs up hope and passion within us. What can you say? There are only a handful of scorers in the NBA that can score 20 points per game and take over games on a regular basis. Celtics fans would be much happier if they learned to temper expectations with Green. When one steps back from the game and considers the fact that he had life-threatening heart-surgery and is back to playing full-contact basketball with the best athletes in the world, it should make fans realize that expectations are often unreasonable, especially with desperate fan-bases.

Zach Lowe recently predicted that the trade market for Green will heat up this winter, as his once-maligned contract looks a lot more reasonable with the rising salary cap. In addition, Green becomes a free-agent in the summer of 2016, which is attractive to teams on the tax bubble. Personally, I’d like to see Green stick around for the next two years, and watch him help these Celtics get to .500 by the end of next year. Sometimes small victories are necessary. Especially for young teams.

Strengths: corner three-pointer over the last two years. Last year, from the right-corner, Green shot 27 of 64 (42%). Finishing at the rim (62.5% last year). Due to Green’s wing-span and leaping ability, he can sometimes finish drives over opposing defenders. Green’s length and foot work make him a very good defender against athletic power forwards. He matches up well with LeBron, so when the Celtics make the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Celtics will be all set.

Weaknesses: rebounding – Green’s body is not made for interior pounding and he struggles to get great position underneath. Offensively, Green needs a point guard to direct him and to get him easy baskets in transition. When he’s feeling it, Green can become a different kind of scorer, which is what makes some fans so frustrated on the nights he isn’t feeling it.

Brandon Bass

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Remember when the Celtics traded for Brandon Bass? Glen “Big Baby” Davis was sent to Orlando, and the Celtics received another undersized power-forward. At 6’8,” Bass is about two inches shorter than many power forwards, and lacks the springy jumping ability to make up for the lack of height. As a result, rebounding is not his strength. Bass has been a dedicated player for the Celtics, always professional and prepared, and played a significant role for those last few years of Pierce and KG. There were rumors of trade talks with Houston and Asik last winter, but Morey had other ideas.

Strengths: consistent 12-15-foot jumper, especially from the baseline. Bass is one of the few non-three-point-shooting big-men who made more from 10-15 feet (56.3%) than they did within 5 feet of the rim (54.8%) last year.

He has excellent lateral quickness and good hands, which makes him a great individual defender when matched with players like Carmelo Anthony, who lives on the elbow, blowing by slower defenders. Bass’ defense on Anthony during the playoffs a few years back was excellent. Bass would have matched up well with LaMarcus Aldridge in the playoffs. Count that as a whiff for Morey. As Bass hits free agency this summer, more rumors will creep up as January approaches. Bass’ age (he turns 30 in April) may limit his desirability.

Weaknesses: rebounding, interior offense (finishing at the rim around the trees), leaping ability.

Evan Turner

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Can you say versatility? Can you say “low-risk”? Danny Ainge signed Evan Turner for the mid-level exception, which means he’ll be in Boston for two years at a very low cost to the cap. Ainge may be thinking of Turner in terms of a stock. Buy low. Sell higher. Personally, I can’t stand thinking about players in those terms. So much talk about the NBA and its players has become a reflection of GM-think: players as faceless investments that either produce good value or poor value. Still, it’s undeniable that Turner’s value was very low after last year’s performance with Indiana.

If Turner regains some of the shine he had coming out of college (2nd overall pick) or the confidence he had in 2012-13, on a decent (34-win) Philadelphia team (13/6/4 on 36% from deep), Ainge has made a great move. Last year was a roller-coaster for Turner, in large part because the Sixers were in all-out tank mode, and stats were easy to come by in a frenetic offense that pushed the pace at all costs. One of the costs: Turner was traded to Indiana and asked to play meaningful minutes in a tightly-controlled offense that rarely was able to push the pace. Is it a shock that he disappointed? Outside shooting was never a real strength for Turner.

Strengths: ball-handling, jack-of-all-trades versatility, off-the-bounce mid-range game, transition, creativity with the ball.

Weaknesses: needs to be able to flow within a system and know his role (back-up point guard, creating mismatches), long-range shooting, confidence, turnovers.

Gerald Wallace

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I don’t have it in me to go deep on Gerald Wallace. I used to love watching him play. He is as unselfish a player as there is the Association, constantly sacrificing his body in the name of defense. He used to be an elite defender who got by with transition points on offense. He would have been an ideal role player (like Tony Allen and James Posey) on those 2008-12 Celtics teams. As you’ve probably noticed, his game hasn’t aged well.

The contract, which he earned every dime of and which is a constant source of criticism, was the price of all the future picks Brooklyn handed to Ainge. He has two years left on it. Sort of surprised the front office didn’t decided to use the stretch provision last year, but I suppose the longer they keep Wallace, the more useful that contract is when it expires. Not convinced that it’s such a big deal with the rising salary cap.

How awesome would it have been to have had Gerald Wallace from 2005-2011, when he was electrifying crowds in Charlotte?

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2014-15 Boston Celtics Preview, Part One: Stevens, Olynyk, Zeller, and Sully

As the 2014-15 NBA season approaches. It’s not easy to face the likely reality that the next six months of Boston Celtics basketball will involve severe growing pains and only brief glimmers of hope among stretches of inconsistency and a growing pile of losses. It would be easy to check out on the Celtics. Most prognosticators are predicting Boston will win between 24 and 32 games. Rajon Rondo’s future in Boston remains anything but guaranteed, and continues to dominate any talk of the franchise. When I heard that Rondo’s hand was broken and he’d be missing the opening of the regular season, the orange glow from the remaining ashes of my optimism went out. Of course, now we’re hearing he could be back on opening night. I would guess he misses a few games.

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As any Celtics fan knows, Rondo will be an unrestricted free-agent in July. He turns 29 in February and though we have no way of knowing whether or not Rondo will be a Celtic after the trading deadline, we may as well assume he will be. All of the assumptions over the last 16 months about where and when he will be traded have proven false.

Youth Movement

Last year’s Celtics were an assortment of ages and experience. Veterans Kris Humphries, Courtney Lee, Jerryd Bayless, and Joel Anthony have been scattered to the NBA winds. In their place are younger, less-experienced players, each hoping to establish themselves: Evan Turner (25), Tyler Zeller (24), Marcus Smart (20) and James Young (19). As the Celtics move forward, they have only one over-30 year-old player under contract for 2015-16, Gerald Wallace (33).

Let’s start with coach Brad Stevens, and then examine three of the taller Celtics on this year’s roster.

Brad Stevens – Coach

Boston Celtics Introduce Brad Stevens

To anyone who has followed Brad Stevens’ career, he seems like an ideal coach to lead a young NBA roster. He appears dedicated to developing relationships with players, he rarely loses his composure, (great for now, though as the team gets more competitive, it would be nice to see more intensity and emotion from him), and he embraces analytics in a way that seems intelligent. The flipside of heavily embracing analytics is maintaining flexibility in game situations. While the NBA gradually moves toward the Morey-ball approach of lay-ups, free-throws and three-pointers as the most efficient offenses, there will be a tendency for teams to over-emphasize these shots regardless of their players’ strengths. People forget about how important the long-range two-point jumper was for recent championship teams (Dirk and the Mavs, Bosh and the Heat). In addition, defensive chemistry is complicated to build and involves constant coaching and communication, as well as skilled defensive players. Speaking of Morey-ball, the defense in Houston continues to struggle despite two excellent individual defenders in Howard and Beverley.

In my view, the role of the NBA coach is to show commitment to a vision of success and team-culture; to build a strategy and then consistently teach those strategies, with the help of assistants; to learn about each of his/her players on an individual basis and to consider a plan for keeping each of those players motivated. Does Stevens do these things well? It appears so, but it’s too early to tell and he has several new players to figure out.

This isn’t to say that players aren’t responsible for staying motivated. As professionals getting paid large amounts of money, it is obviously their job to stay motivated. However, the grind of a six-month season dictates there will be mentally draining stretches, physical demands and injuries. As Stevens has noted, one critical difference between college and the NBA is lack of practice time once the season starts. Practice time is replaced by travel time and back-to-back games. Without the chance to stay connected to his players on the practice court, Stevens and all coaches have to find ways to keep a team united and connected when they are on losing streaks, when they are tired and waiting for planes and hotel shuttles. Team-bonding is a tricky thing and developing trust among teammates can be difficult when teams are in transition and few players are sure of their future status. More than anything, the Celtics need to determine a definitive direction this season. GM Danny Ainge will have decisions to make regarding Rondo and Jeff Green and Stevens will take it from there. There’s a good reason Ainge signed him to a six-year deal.

Kelly Olynyk

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Olynyk’s rookie year got off to a somewhat predictably rough start, as he adjusted to the speed and physicality of the NBA. A severe ankle sprain forced him out of 10 games early on, and he played catch-up for much of the season. Fortunately, the final 22 games of the season showed why the Celtics valued him enough to move up from the 16th to the 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft. In those final 22 games (March and April), Olynyk shot 20 of 45 (44.4%) from deep, averaging 12.2 points on 53% from the field, with 6.5 rebounds in 22 minutes per game.

Strengths: shooting, off-the-bounce creativity and passing.

In a dream future scenario, Olynyk will eventually have a Channing Frye-like impact on the Celtics offense, stretching the floor and opening up lanes for penetration. Olynyk has decent passing skills for a tall man.

Weaknesses: Olynyk’s mediocre rebounding and non-existent shot-blocking will cause opposing big-men to drool with anticipation. Hopefully some added strength and experience will help him this year.

 

Tyler Zeller

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Zeller was acquired in the Brooklyn-Cleveland-three-team deal this summer in which the Celtics used their trade exception to take on the elder Zeller (Cody is the younger), Marcus Thornton and his unwieldy contract, and a future late-1st round pick from Cleveland. Zeller played reasonably well in his rookie year, but lost minutes last year. Known for his ability to run the floor, Zeller is listed at 7’0’ and 250 lbs. That would be 10-15 pounds more than Olynyk. In NBA lingo, he can “bang.” Unlike Olynyk, Zeller has shown an ability to protect the rim. According to NBA.com, he was very good at defending the paint, as opponents shot just 47.3% near the rim against him last year. One caveat is that those numbers came in reserve minutes against reserve centers. Another caveat, Zeller used his verticality to deter shots, but averaged only 0.9 blocks in 26 mpg as a rookie.

One sign of possible growth: in limited attempts, Zeller shot 51.4% from 15-19 feet last year. In a pick-and-roll league, Zeller’s half-court strength will be in his ability to drain the elbow jumper, more than posting up.

Strengths: speed, finishing at the rim, interior defense, fundamentals

Weaknesses: long-range shooting, shot-blocking

Jared Sullinger

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks

More than maybe any other Celtic, Jared Sullinger has the potential to break out and establish himself in his third year in the NBA. Brad Stevens has visions of Jared Sullinger becoming a legitimate stretch-4, and used the 13-14 season as an extensive trial period for Sullinger’s long-range jumper. Legendary commentator Tommy Heinsohn, who often pines for the days of yesteryear when big men dominated the post, nearly lost his final marble.

The results of the Sullinger experiment were less than stellar, but this new wrinkle may show benefits this season. In 184 attempts from above-the-break (three-pointers that DO NOT come from the corners), Sullinger connected on only 50, for 27.2%. In rare opportunities from the corners, Sullinger wasn’t much better, going 6 of 21.

In an attempt to encourage Celtics fans and bring a ray of hope to the proceedings, Sullinger has found the range in the preseason, knocking down 14 of 26 from distance. If Sullinger can make 33-35% of his three-pointers, we can loosely use the term “stretch-4.” Unlike most stretchy power forwards, Sullinger is a very good rebounder. Over the course of a season, long-range shooting consistency tends to depend on the stamina of the shooter. Think of the best shooters in the game: Ray Allen, Steph Curry, Kyle Korver. Those back-to-backs in February and March are not kind to shooters. Hopefully, Sullinger can continue hitting from deep once the season begins and then again, post-all-star break.

Sullinger’s tenacity and physicality add the spirit and grit that the post-Garnett Celtics have been lacking underneath. When he’s playing well, the Celtics tend to play well.

Strengths: offensive rebounding, pick-setting, tenacity, possibly a developing long-range jumper

Weaknesses: prone to foul trouble, cold-shooting streaks, sloppy passing

***

In the next few days, I’ll post Part II, where I’ll look at Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Evan Turner and Gerald Wallace.

By the end of the week I’ll have Part III wrapped up, where I’ll write about the little men.

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Tips on Fandom: How to Be a Semi-Enlightened NBA Fan (Or How to Navigate the NBA Media Swamp)

1. Stop watching ESPN’s daily programming. When you watch actual NBA games on ESPN or TNT, feel free to use the mute button when commentators start to discuss “juicy” gossip or spread controversy.

2. Read Jonathan Abrams, Tom Ziller, Paul Flannery, Bethlehem Shoals, Zach Lowe, Steve McPherson, Ian Levy, and Lee Jenkins as well as several independent NBA blog-writers.

3. Whenever you read a headline that says, “Player [x] says [x] about Player [x]” or “Player [x] says he’s the best [x],” remind yourself that it’s not news and that it’s designed to make you click. This is called “click-bait.” Avoid clicking.

4. Realize that the majority of the opinions you read about NBA players or NBA teams is a product of group-think. Forming your own opinions about players takes more time, more reading, and actual observation of the players in the actual games.

5. Limit the amount of time you spend considering the salary-cap, free-agency and trades. Everything you read about the salary-cap over the last few years loses all meaning as soon as the NBA’s league office determines how high the cap will jump over the next few years, due to the enormous television deal the NBA signed with Disney (ESPN/ABC) and Turner (TNT). Every long-term contract a player signs will make them overpaid, and the vast majority of the NBA owners will continue to swim about in their wealth, so stop worrying about contract negotiations.

6. Possible trades are not actual trades. Endless, usually uninformed, speculation is cheap writing and cheap reading. Guesses about where players may go, who might be unhappy, and who is going to demand a max contract are all wastes of your time. They are not the game you love and they should not dictate how you follow a sport.

7. Speculation shapes a player’s reputation and group-think allows casual fans to believe they know what kind of person each player is. Don’t bother pretending you know if a player is a good guy or a bad guy. We all have positive and negative characteristics and most of us change.

8. Allow yourself to consider that each professional athlete is capable of changing, both in how they behave off the court, and how they perform over the course of his or her career. Neuroscience shows us that the male brain develops full executive functioning at age 25. Instead of agreeing with the commentary, “Player [x] is a knucklehead,” consider how old Player [x] is. When you read that “Player [x] can’t shoot, but is working on improving his shot,” consider the career arc of Bruce Bowen, whose defense kept him in the league, but whose corner-three-point abilities, combined with his elite perimeter defense, made him a key role player on three NBA championship-winning Spurs teams.

9. Think about what kind of fan you currently are and what kind of fan you want to be. Don’t let the bullshit get in the way.

10. Often when you read about an NBA player, you will see them referred to as an “alpha dog,” a “beast,” a “complementary piece,” or an “expiring contract.” These are simple categories with which to refer to the role or the impact of each player. They are not necessarily meant as negative terms. But consider what it means to refer to athletes this way. Either they are animals or commodities. Are you watching games as if you are following the stock market? Is this how you want to watch the game, watching different size dollar signs $$$ matching up vs. $$? Are you simply a commodity at your job? Is that how you’d prefer to be analyzed? How do you measure your own worth? If it’s by any number, you might need to re-examine what’s important in your life.

11. When you see another headline that ranks players in some list, remember that constantly worrying about a top-10 or top-20 category is somewhat arbitrary and mostly meaningless. These lists are exist because they make for simple debates and are easy to argue over. Remember this around mid-season when the All-Star game nears.

12. Enjoy the games for the teamwork that they display, the sacrifice involved, the actual drama of the moment, and the improvised artistry and athleticism of the game of basketball.

13. Enjoy the analysis of the game that examines the numbers, the efficiency, the coaching, and the strategies employed.

14. Appreciate the stories of each player who has the opportunity to play in the best basketball league in the world. Writers like Abrams and Jenkins are writing in-depth about how some of these players made it and why we should cheer for them.

15. Stop hating just to hate. If you hate one player, maybe its the narrative that you really hate, which means you probably haven’t questioned the narrative. Hating a team is okay, if that team is the rival of the team you genuinely love.

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